This week I had intended to write about anonymous or blind marking. It is a topic I feel quite passionate about and, after several weeks of marking essays, I had a number of points I wished to make. Yet, I was concerned that I would be merely preaching to the converted and so decided to undertake a short survey of recent blogs and other writings on the subject. I was so incensed by what I found that Anonymous Marking will have to wait. Instead I must address the issue of Gendered Writing.
Let me begin with a suitably controversial statement:
There is no such thing as male writing or female writing, only good writing and poor writing.
I do not mean, of course, that what qualifies as good writing is wholly uniform or without variation. Nor would I ever argue that, within certain debates, there cannot be male perspectives or female perspectives. What I object to is the idea that men and women have natural writing styles that must be recognised as equally valid approaches to the art of composition and accommodated for within the realm of academia. This, as they say, is complete and utter nonsense.
I, Melodee Helene Beals, have a writing style. It has been developed over the course of many years of reading and writing, and is likely to have several distinguishing features. Some of these distinguishing features may in fact be errors of composition; indeed I am confident that some of them of are. These should be corrected, not accommodated.
But why, you may ask, am I so incensed by the idea of gendered writing styles?
My anger began, as I stated above, while undertaking due diligence for this week's blogpost. After reading several interesting commentaries on the practice of anonymous marking, I came upon this campaign by the National Union of Students. It makes several claims about the need for and benefits of anonymous marking, many of which I found counter-intuitive if not completely counter-factual to my own experience, both as a lecturer and a student. Yet, as an open-minded individual, I gave the NUS the benefit of the doubt and endeavoured to read their entire policy document, found here. Again, I was confronted by a number of claims regarding under-marking because of the race, faith or gender of the student. Concerned that such discrimination was still in fact occurring within the UK university system, I scrolled down to the bibliography in order study the document's citations. There were none. Undeterred, I returned the NUS campaign page, which did have a selection of further reading listed.
You will notice, no doubt, that with the exception of Steinberg's piece (which I could not locate and therefore cannot comment upon) they all deal with gender bias in marking and assessment, rather than race or religion. Still, hoping to find the latest and therefore most relevant study of this phenomenon, I began with 'An analysis of undergraduate writing styles in the context of gender and achievement.'
As I was about to begin it, however, I saw that Francis had in fact written another piece two years later on gendered writing in undergraduate history. This, I thought, would be ideal. This, it turned out, prevented me from obtaining a good night's sleep.
Let me begin by highlighting the fact that although ostensibly a study from 2000s, the data used by Francis et al was actually obtained between 1997 and 1999, making its relevancy to contemporary trends questionable to say the the least. Nonetheless, I continued.
What I found was, from my perspective, a very strange methodology indeed. The educational researchers had examined a relatively small number of history essays, eighty-seven, from four London-based universities. They compared the mark given to a list of sentence categories that they had assigned to the essay:
The categories we chose were ‘bold’, ‘tentative’ and ‘evaluative’. Following the pilot phase of the study, ‘bold’ was divided into bold 1 (extreme boldness or overstatement) and bold 2 (straightforward argument or assertion) and ‘tentative’ into tentative 1 (extreme caution) and tentative 2 (qualification) (p. 385).
My difficulty with this methodology is twofold. First, the sample size, particularly the geographical narrowness of the sample size, is completely inappropriate for wider extrapolation, as the cohorts of these universities are likely to be very different from those of the wider undergraduate community. London, after all, is a metropolitan centre, which will attract and retain a different subset of undergraduates; the social dimension of the undergraduate experience, as opposed to that of postgraduates, cannot be underestimated.
My second, and more important, qualm is that the definition of bold or tentative was based upon discipline-neutral vocabulary rather than historiographical content. Without consulting the historians who actually marked the work, these definitions are essentially meaningless.
I, for example, often identify bold or tentative historical statements by the source; whether or not it has come directly from my own lectures or the core textbook reading, rather than from wider research and synthesis. Indeed, these researchers did not seem to fully understand the nature of historical writing, which they described as 'likely to put a particular emphasis on shaping an aesthetically pleasing product out of a formless body of raw data' and to 'approach problems in an open-ended way, allowing the hypotheses to emerge from the data.' They contrasted this with sociological writing, which they attest 'begins with a hypothesis and is followed by the data.' (p. 353) I found this a little insulting, to say the least.
But, you may ask, what is the point to the long and rambling tirade? Where is the gendered element?
At the end of this rather tentative study, it was determined that as women were under-represented in the UK professoriate, female students were unable to imagine an appropriate female authoritative voice to emulate in their own writing. They therefore became dependent upon qualifiers and tentative vocabulary in order 'hedge their bets' and avoid conflict or offence.
Although I can certainly appreciate the value of gender-specific role models to some individuals, I have never aspired to write 'like an authoritative woman'. I want to write well. I want my writing to be clear, persuasive, and evidence-based. These are not gendered goals.
But wait, it gets worse:
Harding (1990, 1991) maintains that academic writing is a masculine mode of discourse. Argument, rationality and ‘objectivity’ tend to be stressed at the expense of emotion and subjectivity. The conventions place constraints on the use of personal experience and the identification of authorship.
Despite the passion of this piece, I do not consider my academic writing to lack argument or to be irrational or subjective. If it were I would not be able to achieve my stated goals.
The paper also notes that
women’s style of argument tends to be affliative and men’s more objectifying or competitive. Rubin and Greene (1992) found that women were twice as likely to acknowledge other viewpoints in their writing as men and that their writing was, as a result, less confrontational and more affliative.
My objection to this is simple. Effective historical writing requires an objective, rational argument if it is to offer any value to other academic readers or to society as a whole. Subjective, irrational discourse would serve no purpose. To imply that this is how women naturally compose text is insulting.
I will concede that the modern secondary education system may socialise women (and, I would argue, many men) to write in a tentative and non-argumentative way. However, this is not an indication of gendered writing styles that ought to be accommodated in the name of fairness and gender equality, but rather poor writing practices that ought to be stamped out, as evidenced by 2500 years of rhetorical evolution.
There is no male writing or female writing. There is only good writing and poor writing. If women are not writing to the standard we have come to expect of male students, then additional support should be provided to repair any damage that accommodating gender styles at secondary level has done. I cannot countenance living in a world of subjective, irrational discourse just because it seems a simpler solution than teaching students to write well.
Moreover, those who currently hold power in our society, those who have been taught to present their arguments in a persuasive, clear and authoritative fashion, will continue to do so while women, the working-classes and ethnic minorities will be merely accommodated and, as a result, fail to achieve the positions in society they might otherwise obtain.
My evidence of this is Francis's own 2001 article, which concluded that 'in the case of “second-class” awarded essays, a majority of academics were unable to correctly identify the author[']s gender.'
Writing well is not gendered.